Educating Harlem
A Century of Schooling and Resistance in a Black Community


by Ernest Morrell and Ansley T. Erickson

Across our thirteen chapters, we recount the persistent dignified struggle of familiar and new actors in Harlem’s educational landscape, in the face of relentless structural opposition.

Just as the struggle to learn and to teach has been a feature of four hundred years of African diasporic history in North America, educational activism has been consistently present since African Americans and Afro-Caribbeans first migrated to Harlem in the twentieth century. Daniel Perlstein puts Black educators at the center of New Negro intellectual life as he situates Gertrude Ayer and Mildred Johnson’s Black progressive educational visions and practice in the New Negro understandings of race, education, and modern life expressed in celebrated literary works that helped define the Harlem Renaissance. Thomas Harbison contends that during the Great Depression, parents and community members in Harlem vocally opposed a restrictive curriculum that administrators thought appropriate for the growing presence of Black southern and West Indian students in the 1920s and 1930s, arguing it was yet another form of discrimination and injustice. Lisa Rabin and Craig Kridel place the Teachers Union’s Harlem Committee at the center of a critical media pedagogy that used film in high school classrooms to promote dialogue around issues of race and justice.

Jonna Perrillo reveals a lesser-known side of the poet Langston Hughes: as an author of African and African American history texts for children. Clarence Taylor engages parents and community members who were willing to take on the Teachers Union when they felt there was more concern being given to job security than to the pedagogical needs of their children. Ansley Erickson explores an early 1960s program, initiated by Kenneth Clark and his colleagues, in which Harlem youth ages fourteen to twenty-one became researchers and agents of change in their community. Russell Rickford explores the many ways that activists attempted to translate Black Power into subversive and transformational educational practices in formal and alternative autonomous educational spaces. Nick Juravich explicates the dignity and agency of local mothers who served as paraprofessionals in the Harlem schools bringing literacy and culturally responsive curriculum into the schools that served their children. Kim Phillips-Fein and Esther Cyna encounter the determination of local residents to combat the inhumane austerity measures that the city meted out during its infamous fiscal crisis in the early 1970s. Brittney Lewer shares the work of Babette Edwards, an early advocate for vouchers and ultimately charter schools in Harlem.

It becomes difficult to say anything collective about these efforts. They involved diverse actors with different viewpoints over different eras with different degrees of success, defined in various ways. What unites them is their persistence, their unabashed agency in the face of often overwhelming odds, and their collective belief that the children of Harlem were worth more and deserved better from their schools, and from their city and country. The local human energy and intellect fervently devoted to improved educational opportunities for Harlem’s school children over this eighty-year period simply cannot be overstated. Nor should it be overlooked. Contrary to the narrative of continued and persistent urban decline there have been key “victories” and successes throughout; ongoing struggle is a better frame for the relationship between oppressive structural contexts and collective local praxis for change.

We have endeavored to introduce new historical actors and to trace the ways that women, working-class people, and young people have been key figures in the fight for equitable schooling in Harlem. On the Harlem education stage we name as actors school administrators, artists, young people, church leaders, social workers, architects, librarians, mothers, union organizers, activists, Black Power leaders, university professors, and journalists, among others.

Our chapter authors bring to the forefront variations, tensions, and debates within advocacy movements across these eras. There is no single Harlem movement; no one approach to educational change. Our chapters repeatedly highlight the diversity within the “movement” in their conscious attempts to pluralize Black Harlem in the historical educational narrative. Rickford speaks to the divergences within the Black Power framework as he articulates that no single ideology shaped the terrain of alternative education in Harlem. Lewer shows conscientious Black public intellectuals on both sides of the voucher debate in the 1970s.

Despite this resistance, imperialist and structuralist-racist policies and practices persist at the peril of African American communities in Harlem. Oppression continues to grow and adapt in response to powerful community resistance. Kimberley Johnson illuminates the multiple forms of structural segregation in Harlem that precipitated the decline and closing of Wadleigh High School. Juravich presents the working-class women of color who choose the United Federation of Teachers—a victory—but not without hierarchy. Phillips-Fein and Cyna’s analysis of the mid-1970s fiscal crisis reveals that as the city began to suffer financially it turned first and most violently to those who were most vulnerable. Harlem, they argue, faced more school closures than almost any other neighborhood in the city; Lewer situates Babette Edwards’s transition to voucher advocacy in her disgust with an entrenched educational bureaucracy that increased her skepticism about the city’s willingness and ability to serve Harlem’s children through public schools. And Bethany L. Rogers and Terrenda C. White highlight the effects of a reconfigured Harlem educational landscape on teachers of color in Harlem, where the population fell from a high of 70 percent in 2000 to 45 percent in 2015. In each era we find this dialectical tension between local community agency and oppressive educational structures in an unequal city. This is the real story.

On Positions

Although sometimes scholars stand silently while letting their work speak for itself, there is a certain danger in positioning ourselves as invisible scribes without location or values or presence. We are acutely conscious of our positionalities as authors located in Harlem (if you extend the contested border to the west of Morningside Park), as scholars working under the banner of a privileged institution which has been at times a quiet bystander, at times an unwelcome intervener, and at times a well-meaning, even dutiful partner in urban transformation—but always privileged. We are penning a historic narrative of schooling and resistance while in the employ of an institution that has sometimes been the cause or the object of resistance by the neighborhood we study and write about. We chose not to devote a chapter to Columbia’s story because much of it falls outside of our focus on K–12 schooling, but we could not end this volume without acknowledging our presence and the presence of Columbia as an actor at key moments in the decades we do cover.

In 1968 the Student’s Afro-American Society at Columbia University sided with Black residents in Harlem to prevent the university from building a gymnasium in Morningside Park. Stefan Bradley’s Harlem v. Columbia University explores the role of Black Power ideology in fomenting resistance from within the university to the imperialist project of the institution. In this case the students exist as hybrid actors—part of the university and part of the community.1 It is difficult to say that Columbia speaks with one mind at all times, but it is also clear that the administration stood firmly on the side of claiming the space of Harlem for its own use without reciprocation or collaboration with its neighbors east of Morningside Drive. These moments are not forgotten by a community whose view of campus is generally from the outside, through iron fences and security gates as well as barriers of cost and procedure. And even when not fighting over land, where has Columbia stood when the residents of Harlem have risen up against the city and the city’s school system? Do Columbia’s frequent silences speak of complicity or merely indifference? Is there a real distinction between the two? What legitimate access have Harlem’s grade school and secondary students had to the academic arsenal of the university? What landmark scholarship has been focused on transforming the educational conditions of Harlem’s schools? And how can the largest (and some say the best) college of education in the world have, as its backyard, a school system that frequently disappoints its residents? This was not the terrain of our book, and we may not be the scholars to write it. But we hope that the full scope of the university’s relationship to Harlem and its schools will gain the robust investigation it deserves.

Columbia has also existed as an economic engine, as a developer of land and an architectural force across the decades. LaDale Winling explores the role of Columbia University along with many of its Ivy League partners in generating growth and development during the mid-twentieth century.2 Winling identifies the tensions that frequently existed with local grassroots organizations when universities that were often flush with federal money imposed their will on communities for good and ill. This was not at all a zero-sum game. Winling argues that university expansion and the production of knowledge often occurred at the expense of local neighbors in communities such as Harlem. Similarly, Michael Carriere argues that the well-meaning post–World War II expansion and redevelopment initiatives of campuses such as Columbia often employed war metaphors (i.e., war on blight) and positioned the university as “liberating” the surrounding community and, at the same time, local citizens felt themselves to be combating colonial expansion.3

Future Work

There is more work to do. The silences or absences within or between our chapters point to work that later scholars can and should take up.

We do not directly address the role of churches in activism and organizing, parent action in earlier periods, or questions about space (beyond Gutman’s account of IS 201). Beyond The Modern School discussed in chapter 1, not much in our volume deals with the role of Catholic or other nonpublic schools in early and mid-twentieth-century Harlem. We lack a larger discussion of the material conditions of Harlem, primarily its persistent poverty. Although their roots in local educational activism are explored in chapter 12, we have not offered a full accounting of charter schools, especially Harlem-based influential models such as the Harlem Children’s Zone, which is now well into its third decade.

Our volume does not wrestle with gentrification as a real estate development endeavor and manifestation of racial capitalism as well as a set of demographic and cultural shifts. Future historians will need to address this, especially in considering how the fragmentation of the Harlem educational landscape into schools of choice—and then into schools of choice under public and private management—may have been intertwined with gentrification.

Although we emphasize the presence of women and women’s leadership, much is left to do to understand the way that gender mattered. This is a potentially fruitful line of inquiry not only for educational activism but also for the experience of schooling in Harlem for Black and Latinx communities. How did schooling relate to or become part of the gendered policing of Black and brown students in public space? How did the gendered realities of the carceral and social welfare states shape student and school experience? In the century after Mildred Johnson, Babette Edwards, and Gertrude Ayer pioneered Black women’s school leadership, how does gender figure in the leadership of schools in a changing Harlem?

We recognize a need to stitch the story of schooling into the story of mass incarceration in the United States, especially in a highly policed area such as Harlem, which was one geographic center of the drug trade as well.4 This volume intentionally focuses on formal schooling, but rich opportunities remain for the study of educational spaces outside of school. Rickford’s exploration of alternative and community education efforts and Erickson’s investigation of HARYOU point to some examples of spaces that could be examined, but much more needs to be done. Part of rooting out still-dominant deficit perspectives of Black and Latinx communities involves recognizing the presence of learning in many community locations, not only in schools.

In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, immigration helped change Harlem, in particular with the arrival of growing West African communities. We need more scholarship on the experience of these communities with schooling and the interactions between different diasporic communities in Harlem’s school hallways and classrooms. We need to know much more about Harlem’s educational movements in the 1980s and 1990s in general. This includes a robust historical analysis of the early years of the Harlem Children’s Zone and the early days of the charter school movement in Harlem. We call, in general, for more nondeficit stories. We need more gender-focused accounts. We need more narratives told from the so-called margins. We need more research that strives to locate and explicate moments of persistence, resistance, and occasional triumphs, not just decline. We need more Harlem-focused scholarship that explores the myriad ways that the city’s educational and political-economic structures counteract organized community action.

And surely the educational moments that we do study will merit further research in the future. In this book, we have different—not contradictory, but different—takes on Intermediate School (IS) 201. Rickford and Lewer each emphasize the quest for autonomy in decision making and the disappointments of not receiving it fully. By contrast, Marta Gutman recognizes these limits but wants to shine light on what was accomplished by the school’s leadership—as professionals, in their commitment to Black history, and affirmative pedagogy. IS 201 is thus a reminder that multiple stories often come out of the same sites and moments, and that scholarship evolves and grows over time.

Michel-Rolph Trouillot examines the silences of the archives and their influence on the production, the making of history.5 We simply cannot study what just is not there. Part of the work of future historians of urban education in the twentieth century entails cultivating and curating the archives we need to better ensure the telling of the narratives that need to be told. In the ongoing Harlem Education History Project at Teachers College, we have been involved in efforts to make digital copies of yearbooks, photos, and artifacts of resistance and to record oral histories that capture the everyday lives of students and their families.6 The technologies exist for us to archive the words of the actual participants in Harlem’s educational life, and a greater effort needs to be made to preserve the educational experiences of students, paraprofessionals, teachers, principals, parents, and community advocates. There is no good reason for these voices to be absent in our historical conversations. In her major work of literary criticism, Toni Morrison discusses the missing Africanist presence in American literary theory.7 She defines her critical task as one of presencing, of revelation. We see a parallel role for the community of urban educational historians.

Beyond History

Bob Marley claims that “If you know your history, then you would know where you coming from.”8 Why do the educators, school leaders, and policy makers of the present need to seriously regard the educational history of Harlem? What can be learned from a close examination of the past? We began this work in hopes that we would speak to historians and nonhistorians alike. We conclude our joint work with a few points of consideration.

Critical historical work should challenge us to renarrativize the past as we act in the present. History is a contested terrain and, as contemporary educators, we need to tell ourselves more robust, divergent, and complicated stories about how communities have responded to educational conditions in the past. In her 2009 TED Talk, the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns of the danger of a single story.9 She cautions that the danger of stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. She speaks most directly of fiction, but the same can be said for historical narratives. Easy understandings of how communities and schools work need to be challenged. Narratives of perpetual decline need to be consistently challenged. Narratives that ignore agency and resistance need to be challenged. Narratives that silence need to be challenged. And narratives about what schooling is and what schooling means need to be made more complicated and more nuanced. The idea that Harlem is like every other urban neighborhood or that there is a single, simple story of urban education needs to be challenged. Good work should broaden our perspective. It should force us off the simple story. It should increase our appetite for more information about the peculiarities of contexts. It should encourage us to look for tensions, contradictions, and counterdiscourses. Mostly, though, we should feel urged to contemplate more humane and humanizing narratives of our predecessors. We hope to have given a human face (or faces) to education, resistance, and persistence in Harlem. We also hope that our readers who work within educational systems feel license to end the “tinkering toward utopia” that has been so much school reform over the last century.10 Bold moves to dismantle systemic oppression in constant dialogue with local stakeholders is the only conscionable way forward.

Collectively we need a more robust understanding of the sacrifices that parents and families make for their children and their fundamental beliefs and hopes in education to forge different futures. Urban educational history helps to disrupt the myths that parents and communities do not care about the education of their children. As Harbison shows, families risked everything to leave the South in search of an increase in educational opportunity, among other things. From their arrival in the early decades of the twentieth century, these families never stopped advocating despite the sometimes overwhelming odds against them. The persistence and the boldness of their hope remain undertold in traditional historical narratives of urban schooling; but we need to call out that hope when and where we see it in the present and we need to link to this past.

In his work Ernest Morrell has seen the powerful effect of introducing contemporary youth advocates to the youth cultural workers of the past.11 In many ways the work of HARYOU is a precursor to recent movements such as Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR), and the proponents of YPAR would do well to engage the story of HARYOU.

The field needs a better understanding of the ways that teachers have advocated inside and outside of classrooms in curricular interventions such as the Human Relations Film Series and the organizing efforts of the Harlem Committee. As we write these words, teachers are striking all across the country in search of better lives for themselves and the students they serve. Morrell and Jeff Duncan-Andrade have identified that increasing numbers of educators in city schools are turning to critical pedagogy and culturally responsive teaching to create humane learning spaces where children are affirmed in local cultural identities while they develop academic competencies.12 Harlem’s teacher leaders as well as the visions Harlem parents pushed them toward offer inspiration in these efforts.

Future scholarship must recognize the agency and solicit the voices of everyday workers from non-dominant communities, particularly from Black youth and women. One common task is to educate ourselves on the contributions of the frequently marginalized, and to be humbled and bolstered by the persistence of the struggle for educational justice. Finally, we need to remain vigilant in documenting the long trail of undeniable and intentional neglect from a pervasive inequitable system. As the HARYOU authors put it in 1964, “Given a history of criminal educational neglect, the children of Harlem deserve no less than the highest level of education that human intelligence can devise.”13 As constant as the boldness and spirit of the Harlemites past and present are, so too is the constancy of neglect, obfuscation, and subterfuge and the denial of basic rights. The structures remain and so the work must continue, and as long as the injustices persist, so must we.

Previous: Chapter 13

  1. Stefan M. Bradley, Harlem v. Columbia University: Black Student Power in the Late 1960s (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009). ↩︎

  2. LaDale C. Winling, Building the Ivory Tower: Universities and Metropolitan Development in the Twentieth Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), 103–6. ↩︎

  3. Micheal Carriere, “Fighting the War Against Blight: Columbia University, Morningside Heights, Inc., and Counterinsurgent Urban Renewal,” Journal of Urban Planning 10, no. 1 (2011): 5–29. ↩︎

  4. Although released too late for full incorporation into this volume, Carl Suddler’s Presumed Criminal: Black Youth and the Justice System in Post-War New York (New York: New York University Press, 2019) provides an important step in this direction. ↩︎

  5. Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 2015). ↩︎

  6. Harlem Education History Project at Teachers College. ↩︎

  7. Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (New York: Vintage, 1993), 3–14. ↩︎

  8. “Buffalo Soldiers,” written by Bob Marley and Noel “King Sporty” Williams, and recorded by Bob Marley and the Wailers. 1983 release on the album Confrontation, by Island Records. ↩︎

  9. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “The Danger of a Single Story,” filmed July 2009 in Oxford, TED video, 18:43. ↩︎

  10. David Tyack and Larry Cuban, Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995). ↩︎

  11. Ernest Morrell, Critical Literacy and Urban Youth: Pedagogies of Access, Dissent, and Liberation (New York: Routledge, 2008). ↩︎

  12. Jeff Duncan-Andrade and Ernest Morrell, The Art of Critical Pedagogy: Moving from Theory to Practice in Urban Schools (New York: Peter Lang, 2008). ↩︎

  13. HARYOU, Youth in the Ghetto: A Study of the Consequences of Powerlessness and a Blueprint for Change (New York: HARYOU, 1964), 423. ↩︎